HENI Talks x Articulation: Barbara Hepworth, ‘Family of Man’
Qabir Alli and Marianne Whiting — alumni of the ARTiculation Prize — discuss Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Family of Man’, exploring the relationships between the sculptural group, landscape and the viewer, as well as Hepworth’s attention to materials.
This is the second film released in a collaborative series with ARTiculation celebrating ‘Young Voices’ engaging with art.
Articulation is an initiative that provides a platform for students to develop their confidence and ability by expressing their opinions, thoughts and ideas through the arts and public speaking. The initiative seeks to champion young people regardless of background and experience. Articulation began in 2006 at the Roche Court Educational Trust and merged with the National Gallery in 2022.
Qabir Alli (QA): The gardens are beautiful. You cannot help but be drawn in by every aspect of the surroundings. It is by no means like the gallery space, with a backdrop that is white and bland. And that is an important distinction for Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man. If you were to ask most people what they think when you say ‘gallery’, you’ll find most answers will be along the lines of ‘white walls’ and ‘bright lights’. This is the idea of an art display space being a ‘white cube’, a space where uniform colour reflects and grants the viewer a sole focus on the artwork. This sculpture is very different at Roche Court than in a gallery space. When you look through the organic negative space of the sculptures, you see very different things. Here you see the features and landscape beyond, seeing the garden and flowers in full bloom. This sculpture is clearly designed to interact with its environment, and here it is surely being utilised to the fullest.
Marianne Whiting (MW): You’re right, the metal feels both part of and separate from the landscape of Roche Court, for instance, as can be seen with the Parent statue. On the inside, you can see the bronze’s blue patina. Although this detail was added deliberately by Hepworth rather than naturally occurring over time, it makes the sculptures feel as if they have aged and grown up with their environment.
Hepworth also guides us, as we walk through the sculptures to look through the negative spaces inside of them. Negative space was key. By piercing directly through the bronze forms, she emphasises a multifaceted way of seeing. For instance, take the Child statue. Looking through the headspace of the Child, we see the grass, we see the Family, and any visitors that happen to be passing by. With each new place the sculptures travel to, a new part of the story is added to Family of Man.
QA: As said, Hepworth considered strongly how viewers move through and around her sculptures. It is an interaction that focus’ on the idea of family and relationship that she wished to portray in her sculptural work. The sculptures here at Roche Court represent are 3 individuals of the family of man collection. They represent the Ancestor, the Parent, and Child. Family is incredibly important to Hepworth. In life she married twice, having triplets with her second husband. The raising of those children created the experience of a full house, so that by the time the collection was in creation in the late 60s, Hepworth’s own experience of family was developed and at the forefront of her mind. The fact these three sculptures were selected together here is particularly poignant, in its representation of time, showing that as generations move on, there is a change. The very solid permanent feeling of these sculptures perhaps reflects the impermanence of individuals, but the everlasting nature of relationships.
MW: For all their grand size and dynamic detail, these sculptures are marked by how temporary they are. Yes, they have the blue patination, but they’re also made in bronze. Family of Man is telling the story of living forever and decaying with time. This was one key reason for Hepworth’s change in materials. By the late 1960s, she had all but abandoned sculpting with wood in favour of bronze, which held a malleability and a textural aspect that her smooth wooden sculptures. This can be seen looking at the Ancestor. The surface of the Ancestor is gashed with chisel marks which stands in sharp contrast with the smoothed metal of the Child sculpture. By convoluting her designs, Hepworth distinguishes the wise and worldly experience of the Ancestor with the untarnished and simple world of the Child. But this goes further. When you look closer, you can see that the bronze is uneven. It’s puckered and scratched. This can be accounted for by Hepworth’s process of casting in bronze, where the rough surface of the mould was transferred onto the bronze and was not polished down. From a distance, the sculptures may appear smooth but closer investigation shows Hepworth’s hand is obvious. Spatial experience was important to Hepworth, but so was textural experience and this makes for a memorable installation.
QA: The sculptures are memorable. From our initial impressions, to discovering the details of this timeless family’s texture. It’s that feeling of everlasting unity that gets us to think about Hepworth’s intentions. She wants this piece to feel universal. When you look at the sculptures, it’s instantly recognisable that they belong together. It’s this sense of unity that makes this work particularly universal.
MW: These sculptures do feel universal. They have grown up together, even while their environment continues to age them. Even so, the hardy bronze means they will surely outlive me and Qabir. Hepworth’s Family of Man tells the story of the eternal family, where past, present and future exist simultaneously. Hepworth binds those of us living today with our late relatives and relatives and those of us yet to exist. And, if only a fleeting moment, Hepworth makes all of our family histories exist together as one.
With thanks to
New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Park
Timothy Revell, ARTiculation
Josepha Sanna, ARTiculation
The Roche Court Educational Trust
Barbara Hepworth, Family of Man:
Figure I, Ancestor (BH513a); Parent I (BH513d); Youth (BH513c); conceived 1970 and cast 1971-74
Barbara Hepworth © Bowness, courtesy New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Park.
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